MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small, noncoding RNAs that can play crucial regulatory roles in eukaryotes by targeting mRNAs for silencing. To test whether miRNAs play roles in the regulation of wood development in tree species, we isolated small RNAs from the developing xylem of Populus trichocarpa stems and cloned 22 miRNAs. They are the founding members of 21 miRNA gene families for 48 miRNA sequences, represented by 98 loci in the Populus genome. A majority of these miRNAs were predicted to target developmental- and stress/defense-related genes and possible functions associated with the biosynthesis of cell wall metabolites. Of the 21 P. trichocarpa miRNA families, 11 have sequence conservation in Arabidopsis thaliana but exhibited species-specific developmental expression patterns, suggesting that even conserved miRNAs may have different regulatory roles in different species. Most unexpectedly, the remaining 10 miRNAs, for which 17 predicted targets were experimentally validated in vivo, are absent from the Arabidopsis genome, suggesting possible roles in tree-specific processes. In fact, the expression of a majority of the cloned miRNAs was upregulated or downregulated in woody stems in a manner consistent with tree-specific corrective growth against tension and compression stresses, two constant mechanical loads in trees. Our results show that plant miRNAs can be induced by mechanical stress and may function in one of the most critical defense systems for structural and mechanical fitness.
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